Guantanamo Voices

Memory Chains
January 20, 2009, 9:43 am
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Over a table packed with spiced meat and roti a few nights ago, a former Guantanamo detainee asked Chris, “Why are you wearing a handcuff?”

Chris Arendt - Bound to his Bicycle

Chris Arendt - Bound to his Bicycle

Chris laughed and put out his right wrist so the crowded company could get a good look at his metal bracelet. It’s not a handcuff, he explained, it’s part of the chain from the fixed gear bike he left behind in Chicago. Lots of young hipster kids in the US wear bracelets just like his.
Looking at the chain, Moazzam Begg recalls the memory of looking down at his shackles in Guantanamo and realizing they were inscribed with “Made In England.” The shackles turned out to be manufactured only three miles from his childhood home at a factory run by the Hiatt & Company. In further bizarre coincidences, “hiatt” is the Arabic word for life. Upon his return from Guantanamo, Begg joined with local peace groups to protest Hiatt, which eventually shut its Birmingham doors and moved out of town.


In Which Chris’s Hair Gets Professional Help.

Despite coming from different countries, different generations, different religions  and different sides of the Guantanamo Bay wire, Moazzam Begg and Chis Arendt actually agree about a lot of things. It’s the small issues that prove  irreconcilable. Like hairstyles.

I’ve described Chris’s hair on here as a “messy mohawk” but it’s not, really. Chris informed me that it’s a “high fade” with a long floppy bit in front that he cut himself. Across the UK, this hairstyle has resulted in constant teasing.

It's not a mohawk. It's a "high fade."

It's not a mohawk. It's a "high fade."

At first, Moazzam threatened to cut the floppy front bit off while Chris slept. Then the stylist at Al Jazeera English kindly forced a bottle of hairspray into Chris’s hands.

But the most merciless and, perhaps, most effective ridicule came from the Bratford-born waiter at a tiny bed and breakfast in Brighton. When he learned Chris was from Chicago, the middle aged man interjected with the traditional dry Bratford wit, “The Windy City! So that explains the hair!”

He was a chatty guy and it was a good breakfast, so the conversation turned to what we were doing in the UK. When Moazzam explained that he and Chris were ex-Guantanamo Bay detainee and guard, the waiter laughed and then, in the moment of silence, paused and put his hand over his mouth, “Oh God, I thought you were joking.” He stopped for only a beat and then asked Moazzam who had been the prisoner and who had been the guard.  Moazzam explained that he was the one imprisoned and the waiter replied, “Oh, I thought it must have been the other way around, the haircut on that boy has to be some form of punishment.”

Chris got the point — he’s taken to using some hair gel. The Bratford waiter turned out to know a thing or two about hairstyles. As we wait to check out of the hotel, he sticks around to inform us that his night job is performing as Brighton drag queen Betty Swollocks. After he encourages us to watch his drag videos on YouTube, I realize that despite the dry English wit the man is not kidding – he really IS drag queen Betty Swollocks and soon the quiet little bed and breakfast lobby fills the sounds of  his internet rendition of “The Boys of Summer.”

The Anger of Soldiers
January 14, 2009, 8:48 pm
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In the car today between Bristol and Brighton, Moazzam and Chris got to talking about all the reports of soldiers returning from duty very violent people. Chris mentioned that within his unit, several of the men had been charged with violent crimes after coming home and he himself had tried to commit suicide. They agreed that soldiers have a lot of pent up rage. During his time in detention, Moazzam experienced this as a latent hostility against, it seemed, all things Muslim. An intense conversation followed:
Moazzam: All the cells [in Bagram] had different names on them.. one was called Somalia and Libya and Lebanon. And I was thinking, “What’s Somalia got to do with this? What’s Lebanon got to do with this?” And then I started to realize, these people feel that this is payback time for the Muslim world… It didn’t say Vietnam, it didn’t say Korea.  For some people, there is some pent up rage and that it’s payback time for these people.
Chris: You know, I grew up with these kids and I feel like they were this angry all the time. These kids are the same kids who beat me senseless when I was in school, who were constantly aggressive all of the time. These were the kids who even though I was a part of the military, even after I had gone through basic training and proved myself, taped me to my bed, beat the shit out of me in the night, beat me in the stairwells, beat me in the showers… In basic training I got hit in the face with a shovel in my sleep…

Moazzam: You know when you said that some of these guys were psychotic —
Chris: I mean it! I was more terrified than of anybody I’ve ever been in my entire life. Being surrounded by these guys was one of the scariest things I’ve ever experienced. I was way more terrified spending a year around them than a year around terrorists. Absolutely. I’ve been more physically abused by these people than anybody I’d ever been in my entire life. These were scary people to me.

Brainstorming at 100 Miles an Hour
January 13, 2009, 3:38 pm
Filed under: conversations, media, speaking event | Tags: , , , ,

Moazzam and Chris are supposed to be appearing on Yvonne Ridley’s Press TV show at 2:30pm. But it’s 12:50 pm and we’re still in the lobby of the hotel in Bristol, 115 kilometers away from Press TV’s London studio. Chris wolfs down some cold pizza, they throw their bags in the car and we speed down tiny country roads lined with old stone walls. Rounding a corner, the driver slams on the brakes, stuck behind a slow moving truck emblazoned with “Scraggy’s Chimney Sweep.” Chris starts cracking up, saying in his mocking British accent, “I’m a chimbley sweep!” Moazzam and the driver start laughing, too, at the fulfillment of the British stereotype. “No, really, I’ve never seen this,” says Moazzam, “Never in my life have I been stuck behind a chimney sweep.”

Finally we hit the freeway. Chris gets buried in his book — Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity — as Moazzam and Jarallah carry on a loud, expressive conversation in Arabic around him. I crane my neck to see the speedometer. We’re driving 110 miles an hour. We are NOT going to miss this interview.

Moazzam’s phone rings maybe a dozen times. After one call he turns around from the front seat to talk to Chris.

“We’re going to be debating a couple of right-wing guys on television,” Moazzam says, “How do you feel about that?”

“Uh, I might get a little impassioned, but I’ll try not to swear,” replies Chris.

Moazzam nods. “I mean, this is the place to tear them apart. Don’t get angry — get even. This guy, I’m guessing, is an armchair neocon. You and I, we experienced this on opposite sides of the wire but this guy will be talking about something he’s never experienced.”

“Well I won’t be afraid to pull that card out,” says Chris. They both nod and Chris returns to his de Beauvoir.

The Man from Oscar 12

“Well tonight something happened that I never ever thought would happen,” said Chris as he, Asim and I drove away after dinner with a large group of NGO members and human rights lawyers last night, “I sat down and shot the shit with the man from Oscar 12.”

Chris was referring to the ex-detainee who had come to dinner, a young one-armed man named Tarek Dergoul whom Chris immediately recognized when he walked in the restaurant door. As soon as he spotted Tarek, Chris reached across the table to shake his hand and apologize for the incident that burned Tarek’s face into Chris’s memory.

“That was like THE guy that I was like, ‘I don’t know what I would do if I ever met that guy.’ He was the only detainee I was ever involved with anything like a physical confrontation. And I was defensive about it for a long time because it was way my fault, the most my fault thing of anything that happened to me in Guantanamo.”

Oscar block is one of the hardest blocks in Guantanamo. It’s where detainees get sent if the step out of line, break the rules or get aggressive. Chris was assigned to this block on his very first day in Guantanamo. Tarek was serving time in cell number twelve at the end of the block. Their physical confrontation, which haunted Chris for years, began over a bizarrely petty issue: the amount of toilet paper guards could distribute. Chris continued the story as the car sped down London’s wild streets:

“So I’m walking up and down the block and he’s in the cell and is constantly like, ‘M.P. M.P. M.P.! I need some toilet paper! I need some toilet paper!’ So I handed him eight sheets — when everybody gets [to Guantanamo] at first, you do things totally by the book. And he was totally pissed off because I’d given him eight sheets and he was like, ‘It’s three rolls around the hand!” and I was like, “It’s eight sheets! It’s eight sheets!’ And we got into this big thing. So he kept yelling at me and I kept ignoring him and walking and walking and walking and every time I get to his end of the block, he shouts at me, ‘I need more toilet paper!’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not doing this, I’ve given you toilet paper. We’re done.’ But then finally, I decided to give him more toilet paper and I just gave him this obnoxious amount of toilet paper.

So I opened up the beanhole to hand him some toilet paper and, you know, he’s got one arm. So I hand him the toilet paper and he grabs my arm and does this alligator roll. And I pull my arm out and I’m just looking at him… And you know, I just kind of sat there and looked at him for a while, totally shocked, totally embarrassed. I thought about it the whole time I was there. That is, by far, my number one memory of Guantanamo. And I knew it was him when people talked about him, but when he walked in I was like, ‘Oh my God! It’s totally you.’ And then we just sat down and talked, just shot the shit, he was a totally awesome guy.”

East Meets West at the Tate
January 11, 2009, 9:23 am
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Yesterday we had a few free hours between interviews and more interviews, so Asim Qureshi took Chris Arendt and Jarallah Al-Marri on a mini tour of central London. A walk up the Thames wound up at the Tate Modern.

Jarallah, who spent six years imprisoned in Guantanamo, did not think much of Jackson Pollock or the other abstract expressionists.  While wandering around the galleries, Chris,  the former Gitmo guard who is a comics nerd with aspirations of starting an art collective for veterans,  asked Jarallah if he makes any art himself. Jarallah shook his head, no,  he was never that interested in art but after living for six years as Captive 334 he is even less engaged by these Western works.

Jarallah and AR Penck's "West" - an abstract depiction of German history

Jarallah and AR Penck's "West" - an abstract depiction of German history

Over lunch in the posh glass-walled restaurant at the top of the Tate, while other diners sipped cocktails and admired the Thames,  our conversation turned to jihad. Asim Qureshi, our host for the day, is a very intelligent and affable guy — the rare international expert on ghost detention who is also quick to smile and tease Chris about his smoking habit and messy mohawk. According to his critics, Asim is also “one of the worst British jihadist nuts” and I was interested to hear how a man educated at one of England’s best schools could argue in support of jihad.


“People ask me my views on jihad all the time,” began Asim, explaining that for non- Muslims the word “jihad” is loaded with immediate connotations of terrorism and suicide bombers, it is a complicated concept with many different, personal definitions among Muslims. Jihad’s meaning is also dependent on social and political context — it can refer to personal internal struggles of faith or external, armed struggles to reform societies. Asim sees most armed jihad taking place in the world today as self defense. He believes all Muslims are justified in fighting against armies occupying the Muslim world — the Russians in Chechnya, Israelis in Palestine.